Fulham's festive welcome gives way to more London burning injustice for Leeds United - Graham Smyth's Verdict

Fake snow and a brass band playing Christmas carols welcomed Leeds United to Craven Cottage.

Sunday, 22nd December 2019, 11:55 am

There were dainty minced pies, tinsel and free pieces of fruit for kids on the concourse, smiling stewards saying 'welcome to Fulham.'

Santa paraded around the ground before kick-off handing out sweets and there were clappers on the seat of every home fan.

Some of it just wasn't quite football, but it was a lovely introduction to an afternoon by the Thames. It was festive. It was different. Yet it was still London, where Leeds United go to drop points.

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Since beating Fulham in March 2015 they have won just once in 18 trips to the big smoke. And just like their last visit, they left London with burning injustice.

Just like at The Den, a foul that never was resulted in a penalty for the opposition. Against Millwall Gaetano Berardi was red carded for not making contact with Tom Bradshaw in the penalty area and the Lions scored the penalty, winning 2-1. Against Fulham, Ben White was penalised for making hardly any contact at all with Bobby Decordova-Reid and the Cottagers scored the penalty, winning 2-1.

It took just a minute for the Whites fans amassed to one side of the stand behind Kiko Casilla's goal to be served a reminder that things don't go to plan in the nation's capital.

Leeds put together a really nice attack inside 60 seconds and in doing so, lost their playmaker-in-chief Pablo Hernandez.

Leeds protested Tim Robinnson's decision to award Fulham an early penalty (Pic: Getty)

The Spaniard fed Jack Harrison and his cross found Helder Costa free at the back post, his volley deflecting safely into the hands of Marek Rodak, as Hernandez lay prone in the middle of the pitch, feeling his hamstring.

He limped off and Gjanni Alioski made a second minute entrance.

What you get in abundance with Alioski is energy and, in recent outings, no little amount of quality. His goals against Huddersfield and Hull were of huge significance.

But as the afternoon went on it was clear that United were missing Hernandez. No Pablo, no party, as the saying goes.

And to make matters worse, Fulham earned a penalty with their first real attack, Decordova-Reid sinking to one knee under minimal contact from White without looking particularly aggrieved, Robinson taking a long hard look and, convinced he had spotted a foul and not a slight, routine coming together of two bodies playing a contact sport, pointing to the spot.

Aleksandar Mitrovic's spot-kick was palmed onto the post by Kiko Casilla, but it still found the net. Leeds were 1-0 down, in London, without Hernandez. An uphill struggle ensued.

Fulham played a part in making life difficult, turning the ball quickly in behind the Whites, looking for those spaces that open up when Marcelo Bielsa's side press ferociously, man to man.

When they went to Mitrovic, he showed exactly why he is the Championship's form striker, muscling his way forward or sideways, holding the ball up, a scent of danger following him around. Also following him around was White and the youngster has probably not looked less comfortable all season, yet still competed manfully against a handful of a man.

Fulham's own version of the press attempted to stop Leeds at source and there were times when the visitors struggled to get out of their own half of the pitch.

Midway through the half they managed it, Harrison getting to the byline and cutting the ball back for Mateusz Klich who stroked it into the post.

It was a frenetic first half, far more open than most of Leeds' previous outings this season and even from that moment when the ball struck the woodwork, Fulham's man mountain threatened to give United a mountain to climb, breaking away and forcing Liam Cooper into a foul that brought the first of the game's seven yellow cards.

There was real niggle, it was simmering, Fulham were taking their sweet time over restarts and Bielsa embodied Leeds' frustration, regularly remonstrating with the fourth official.

Luke Ayling made a few new friends in the main stand with his frequent skirmishes, winning free-kicks in his usual manner and bundling Tom Cairney into the visiting bench, sparking a flashpoint and ensuring the officials' earache came from both sides.

Leeds needed a little more in attack and at the break Bielsa swapped Costa, whose only other first half contribution of note was dumping Joe Bryan on the turf with a rugby-style hand off after escaping a headlock, for Eddie Nketiah.

Nine minutes after the interval Alioski played a through ball Hernandez would have been proud of, Nketiah's well-struck shot was too hot for Rodak to handle and Patrick Bamford gleefully accepted a gift-wrapped chance to score his 10th of the season.

For a time, it looked as if the London curse was to be lifted.

Leeds got on top, gaining not just control but forward momentum.

Nketiah showed off his pace, without even looking like he was sprinting, to reach a ball destined for the byline and Harrison whipped in a cross, Alioski's header saved.

The momentum evaporated all too quickly, Fulham storming back into it, Cavaleiro unleashing a thunderbolt that Casilla tipped over brilliantly.

He had no chance with the next one.

Mitrovic won his latest battle with White and a corner kick to boot. The ball was swung in for the Serbian to control, White blocked his route to goal but Josh Onomah appeared to lash home an unstoppable effort.

Leeds were 2-1 down, in London, with time running out, with no Hernandez.

And it was in the final third, both on the clock and on the pitch, that Leeds really missed his quality.

They got into good positions but took heavy touches or misplaced passes, players who have been so good on the ball all season finding accuracy suddenly so hard to come by.

Without that accuracy and with sloppiness setting in, they couldn't reel Fulham in.

In time added on they let the Thamesiders off the hook completely, Harrison cutting the back back from the byline once more, Klich finding the head of a defender instead of the gaping net, Alioski volleying Phillips' corner over, Nketiah failing to win the battle in front of the net as a ball flew in.

Fulham wound down the clock, winding up their visitors in the process and when Robinson blew his final whistle, Leeds had lost again in London.

As Bielsa alluded to in his post match press conference, this one was more down to what his team didn't do, than what Fulham did.

Two more Championship trips to the capital await in 2020, with fixtures against QPR and Brentford still to come.

Mercifully, there are 21 other games that will take place elsewhere and a nine point gap between Leeds and third-placed Fulham and Preston North End.

Leeds United's fate is in their own hands. It will not be decided in London.